At poultry slaughterhouses, chickens whiz past workers at the rate of 35 per minute per inspector, getting various parts cut off. At one of the early stations their throats are cut, so it wouldn’t seem to make any difference to the chicken how fast the rest of the production line goes, except for this: some of them are still conscious.
Now the USDA is preparing to implement a rule that would increase that speed to 175 per minute per inspector. Inspectors would have less time to examine birds, meaning that “plant employees [would] replace federal government inspectors for certain inspection activities.” In other words, slaughterhouses would, to a significant extent, police themselves.
United Poultry Concerns describes the slaughter process. Chickens enter the slaughter line when a worker shackles them upside down by the feet (or by one foot; when things move fast it’s hard to be too particular) to a moving belt.
Next they are dragged through electrified water. This doesn’t kill or stun them and isn’t meant to. The purpose is to paralyze them so they won’t thrash around for the rest of the process.
After that the birds reach the throat-cutting machine or worker. The fastest way to kill them here is to sever both carotid arteries, which leads to unconsciousness in two minutes. That doesn’t always happen. The carotids are buried deep in chickens’ neck muscles, so cutters sometimes miss them and cut one jugular vein instead, which leaves the birds conscious and suffering for eight minutes. The birds are left hanging for 90 seconds to bleed out.
The next station is the scalding tank. Chickens are dunked into boiling water to remove their feathers. At this point, many of them are still conscious — they are boiled alive.
Some birds twist their heads up and avoid the throat-cutting machine. Slaughterhouse workers call these fully conscious birds “red skins” because they are still full of blood when they hit the boiling water. In one year that the government kept records for, 3,121,617 red skins were dropped into scalding tanks.
After this dismemberment begins.
Speeding up the process, as the USDA proposes to do, will make it harder to cut both carotid arteries, leaving more birds conscious. If the bleed-out time is shortened, even more birds will feel the boiling water.
Whether the new speed is humane is not relevant to the USDA’s decision. There is no federal law that protects chickens during slaughter, leaving the USDA free to make its choice based on money. The agency “estimates that the changes will save taxpayers $90 million over three years and $256 million in production costs annually.”
Some believe that reducing the time inspectors have to look at each bird will endanger the food supply. McClatchy writes:
Federal poultry inspectors protest that they can’t see bruises, blisters, tumors, pus, broken bones and other signs of tainted birds when carcasses fly by them at a rate of a third of a second. They can’t look inside the birds for bile, partially digested feed or fecal matter, or examine entrails for diseases such as avian leukosis – contaminants that inspectors say can be disgusting at best and dangerous at worst.
“The rule continuously talks about how much money per pound the plants are going to save by going into this process,” said Stan Painter, the chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, a union that represents about 6,500 federal inspectors. “Why the hell is an agency concerned about the money that the plant’s going to save? I realize that’s a stakeholder, but our focus should be food safety.”
Speeding up the slaughter process appears likely not only to make chickens suffer even more than they do now, but also to increase the possibility that people who eat them will ingest contaminants and become ill.
It will also put workers at greater risk of injury. That is why a “coalition of consumer, labor, public health and civil rights groups is calling on the” U.S.D.A. not to pass the rule. According to the coalition, “59 percent of poultry workers had definite or possible carpal tunnel syndrome when line speeds were 70-91 birds per minute.” Those numbers would only increase as lines got faster.
Speeding up the lines in chicken slaughterhouses would increase the birds’ suffering, decrease the safety of their meat, and increase the likelihood of injuries to workers. You can tell the USDA not to adopt this rule by signing our petition.
Photo credit: Hemera